Handheld Market Leaders: Whos on First?

RIM stands out for wireless e-mail; PalmOne, for convergence; Sony, for multimedia; and HP, for flexibility. Which one will connect the dots?

Now that Research in Motion Ltd. has announced that it will support Wi-Fi on a new generation of handheld computers, its time we compare each of the companies that define this category.

PalmOne and RIM compete for the best-connected device today. Palm, with the Handspring 600, arguably has a better phone; the RIM BlackBerry remains clearly superior for e-mail. (Ive found I cant live without my RIM e-mail.) The difference isnt just the coverage, which remains better for the old 900 series without a built-in phone, but the keyboard, which is definitely better.

Sony and HP also have devices with keyboards, but they lack the wide area wireless capability that allows you to have mail pushed to you. And while you can get online to read the mail, I have yet to get anywhere near the experience to which Ive become accustomed on the RIM.

When it comes to multimedia, both Sony and HP have the lead. Sony actually has a Memory Stick video recorder, so you can tape your favorite shows and then watch them on your Clie while you travel. No one else has this capability. (If TiVo or Replay TV could add this capability to one of its devices, it would gain a whole new group of dedicated users.)

HP has the only Pocket PC that comes close to matching the RIMs onboard keyboard. The Pocket PC platform is favored by business because of its closer integration with Microsofts other platforms and in the Pocket PC space, HP continues to offer the most variety. The HP models also pack a unique feature: expansion sleds that let users expand the device to accommodate a wider variety of accessories than the competition. One of these sleds has its own battery, so you can add a 4GB Microdrive and power it from the PDA.

I havent mention two other stand out contenders: Toshiba, which tends to push technology harder then most (its big new high-resolution screen is amazing); and Dell, which often sets the price target the others must follow.

Personally, I think the company that combines the strengths of the RIM and HP products will win, particularly if the device looks as cool as the Sony and is priced competitively. Strangely enough, I think PalmOne currently comes closest to this ideal—but not close enough.

Nor is the field locked up. Ive seen the new Motorola smart phone running Microsofts platform, and Ive heard of an Apple prototype making the rounds in Silicon Valley. ... Im hoping for a surprise next year. Happy New Year, indeed!

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.